Children get bumps and bruises all the time, so when I noticed a bump on my arm, initially I was not surprised. However, I should have been alarmed because I knew this was not normal. I was a healthy eighth grader, weeks away from graduating. One evening, after I finished my homework, I approached my father and told him, “Hey, look at my arm. Whenever I touch my forearm, my pinky finger contracts. Here, you try it. Isn’t that weird?”
My father, a true science buff, was fascinated with my mysterious situation. I asked him why the contraction was happening but he could not give me a conclusive answer. Unsatisfied, I sought my mother’s wisdom. After all, she was the parent who always diagnosed my childhood injuries and ailments. She was also the parent who was grossed out by my pinky contractions. On the other hand, my father and I thought this abnormality was funny and cool. How could pushing down on my forearm make my pinky flinch? It’s not like I can stop it from flinching. Excitedly, I showed my bump to my friends because frankly, it was much more intriguing and unique than being double jointed.
The bump on my arm was big, and seemed to enlarge every day. It protruded from my left forearm and reminded me of an egg nesting in my arm. In the beginning, the bump did not cause any pain, even though it was noticeable. It was only a matter of days before I woke up one morning with agonizing pain. I could not straighten my fingers and I was frozen in a debilitating contraction. I was unable to practice my violin, eat with a fork, write, or pick things up with my left arm. At that point, I asked my mom to take me to the doctor. She agreed that this was the best course of action.
Two days later, the pediatrician advised me to get an X-ray. Much to my regret, my mother and I declined. We decided not to get the X-ray because my pain was slowly dissipating. X-rays detect bones and my pain is in my muscle, I thought, so why get unneeded radiation from an X-ray? As I hoped, the pain went away and I paid less attention to the bump. My mom went back to worrying about other things and completely forgot about my bump. Both of us seemed reassured that this was just a weird thing that happened and then went away naturally.
However, my bump continued to grow bigger.
It was situated on the underside of my left forearm and it felt like a muscle. Maybe my violin practicing is paying off and I’m starting to build muscle on my forearm, I thought. Little did I know that my cells were going absolutely haywire. Three weeks after the initial appointment with the pediatrician, that moment when Mom and I refused the X-ray, my mom reacquainted herself with my bump. I came home from school that day and she screamed, “WHAT IS THAT ON YOUR ARM?”
“THAT is the bump that has been getting bigger and bigger for two months!” I replied.
“Why didn’t you tell me about it?”
“I DID tell you about it and I even complained that I could not straighten my fingers. Remember when we went to the doctor and she told us to get an x-ray?”
“Yes, but YOU said it was getting better,” my mom countered.
“True, but YOU, as the parent, should have overruled my decision,” I said.
“You know what? We’re going to the doctor right now to get to the bottom of this. I can’t believe you didn’t tell me about this. That bump is huge! It looks like you have a russet potato in your arm.”
I could tell my mom was concerned, so we researched what my vegetable-sized bump might be. A few days later we returned to the pediatrician. The doctor strongly urged us to get an x-ray and this time we listened to her. We went the next day; this was the start of many scans.
Disappointingly, the X-ray did not provide definitive results. The report instructed me to follow up with an ultrasound. The ultrasound narrowed the possibilities and raised immediate concerns for the radiologist.
My bump was apparently alive. The ultrasound report explained that my bump had a blood supply. Knowing that I had an unidentified living thing in my arm made me feel like an alien invaded my body. It was the creepiest sensation I had ever felt in my thirteen years.
Next, I had an MRI. The search for identifying my bump became a treasure hunt. After getting to one place, we were instructed to go somewhere else for another scan. I wondered when my scan days would be over.
The following day, my mom picked me up from school and we drove to the library. In the car, she slowly and emotionally said, “Andriko, your MRI results came in.” I put down my book and started to listen.
“You know what a tumor is, right? It’s a clump of cells that does not grow and divide normally. Instead, the cells get out of control and start to multiply and become defective.”
This really piqued my interest because my Mom never sounded like a scientist before.
“There are two types of tumors, benign and malignant,” she cautiously continued.
People can safely live with benign tumors, although at times they are surgically removed. Benign tumors are not cancerous. On the other hand, malignant tumors are cancerous.”
My mom paused for what seemed like five minutes, and this really bothered me because I was anxious for her to finish her statement.
“The MRI shows that you have a malignant tumor.”
My mom never mentioned the words “You have cancer,” like the doctors in movies do when they inform their patients. Instead, she carefully chose her words, as if to protect me. I disliked her approach. When I receive unplanned and unfortunate news, I do not want a euphemism. I want the news. Nevertheless, complaining about the delivery of the news did not seem like a worthy pursuit. I had a malignant tumor so, that meant I had cancer.
Immediately, I felt like a different person. I have cancer! I never would have guessed that the bump in my arm was a cancerous tumor. I imagined myself as one of the kids from St. Jude commercials, only I did not hear sad, dramatic music in the background. I heard the sound of the car’s AC while I was sitting in a library parking lot. For me, getting told I had cancer was not like how it’s portrayed in movies or commercials.
I was shocked by the diagnosis, but determined not to let the diagnosis define me. Knowing that I had cancer did not make the disease itself any worse. If I have lived normally with cancer all of these weeks, I can live normally with it now, I thought.
We knew that I had a cancerous tumor, but we had not identified the exact type of cancer. I needed a biopsy to determine my exact disease. At one appointment, I entered an office and immediately saw a huge sign reading “Virginia Cancer Specialists.” Mom, are we in the right office? I thought, What are we doing at “Virginia Cancer Specialists?” Then it all hit me. I had a cancer that was so freaky and rare, specialists were needed.
I visited this, and other depressing medical clinics, every week for the next year and a half. They were filled with elderly people who looked at me with sadness, as if I were a miserable dog in a cage. At the “Virginia Cancer Specialist” clinic, I was introduced to my oncological surgeon. I liked him because he was outgoing and his nurses were nice.
My worried parents started asking all sorts of questions, such as “Is Andriko going to be okay? Will he need surgery?” My surgeon professionally reassured us that everything would be fine.
“But what if it isn’t?” my mom asked.
“Well, we hope for the best, right?” my surgeon replied. “You’re going to need a biopsy to identify the type of cancer. And why schedule another appointment if I am ready to perform the biopsy now? It doesn’t take long.”
Lured by his persuasive cheerfulness, I asked, “Ok, I guess, but what is a biopsy?”
“I will resect a small part of your tumor so that pathology can identify it,” the surgeon replied.
“But how do you take out the tumor?”
“I have a needle and–”
“That’s what I thought, unfortunately,” I said. I could postpone the biopsy until another day, but then everyone will think I’m a baby. I proceeded to undergo the biopsy.
My amiable surgeon explained that I would experience pain from the injection of the local anesthesia but not from the biopsy itself. He comforted me by saying, “But I’ll inject it very slowly, so to minimize the pain.”
Great. All I could imagine was a Russian scientist in white lab gear, shoving a long, pointy needle into an unwilling patient’s arm, diabolically saying in his Russian accent, “Don’t worry, I’ll go verrry slowly.”
My doctor proceeded with the small operation. First, he sterilized my forearm with orange iodine. He then injected the local anesthesia. True to his word, my doctor proceeded extremely slowly, but it still hurt. I began going numb in my forearm. Despite this, I was still suspicious of the anesthesia’s effectiveness against the long needle.
My eyes met the needle, eight inches long and a millimeter or two wide. My doctor made the primary incision. I saw the needle go in, but I could not feel it. My arm was numb; my senses played tricks on each other. How do I not feel the needle even though I see it right in front of me?
Slowly, my surgeon began extracting my cancerous cells. I suddenly became lightheaded and hot. “I don’t feel well. Please, I need water!” I shouted. But soon it was over. “Ok, all done. Great job Andriko,” I heard my surgeon say. Well, good thing that’s over! I did it.
I was relieved to finally identify my bump. I could call it something more specific and more scientific than my lumpy bump. Several days after the biopsy, I learned that I had embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, cancer of the striated muscle.
My mysterious cancer was identified, but had it metastasized? In other words, the bump on my arm was Rome during the Roman Empire. We had to find out if my cancer empire had spread through foreign parts of my body. I needed a CT and PET scan. These were serious scans, each administering the same dose of radiation the average person receives in a year. Prior to the PET scan, I was injected with radioactive glucose, which meant I had to be in isolation for an hour. The glucose made me so radioactive that I was a threat to other peoples’ health.
During the scans, the speakers blasted old music, such as Frank Sinatra. Instead of taking a nap, I listened to “You Make Me Feel So Young” and “My Way.” I did not know whether to laugh or cry at the irony of my situation.
I received my first positive news from the scan. Fortunately, my cancer empire was not as successful as Caesar’s; it was not powerful enough to control other parts of my body.
Since we knew whether it had metastasized, we could even identify the rhabdomyosarcoma with even more precision. I had intermediate risk, stage III, group III embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma. Wow, I have stage three cancer. Isn’t that near the end, you know, of life? I thought. Stage III just meant that my tumor was in an “unfavorable site” and that it was larger than five centimeters without metastasizing. I had crossed the first hump in this cancer journey. I was fully diagnosed.
I started meeting with my oncologist, a funny guy whose life was dedicated to saving kids with cancer. He made my family and me feel calm the whole time.
My first visit to the chemo clinic began in a bright waiting room full of kids either waiting to be bombarded with life-saving chemicals or already hooked up to them. Some of them had amputated legs; others were pale as death. Most were bald. I knew that this would soon become my life.
The first kid I met at the clinic was a little boy named Marcon. He was hooked to his chemo and walking on his chemo pole, while his mom pushed him around the clinic. My doctor introduced us to him because we both had rhabdo, as most afflicted people call it. We had the same type of cancer; we both experienced similar symptoms of the tumor and we had the same protocol for treatment. Even though I looked down on him because he was half my size, I looked up to him with inspiration because I knew the next year would be filled with similar challenges and setbacks.
Chemo resulted in many months of nausea, vomiting, and mouth sores that caused me not to eat for days. I’d have stomach pains which would keep me on the toilet for hours at a time. I also learned to live without my flexor digitorum superficialis, which was resected in my surgery. Following surgery, I had radiation therapy, which made the skin of my arm peel, itch, and burn beyond what I had ever experienced.
I learned to accept my new life, just like thousands of other children have and thousands of children will have to. Everyone in the cancer community discovered their cancer unexpectedly, whether from pain, a bump, or fatigue. My journey will never be over, as my risk for secondary cancer is increased due to all of the radiation.
Nevertheless, I learned that I was not alone and that life isn’t always smooth. Sometimes there are bumps along the way that you just have to accept.
Just like I accepted my bump on my arm.